Benin Economy and Politics
The name of the ancient African kingdom was officially assumed, by decree of 11 November 1975, by the republic of Dahomey (XII, p. 227; App. III, 1, p. 462). Within the current boundaries, the Benin has an area of 112,600 km 2 ; the residents, which in 1961 amounted to 2,106,000, in 1973 had risen to 2,912,000. With an average of 26 residents per km 2 Benin is one of the most populated countries in West Africa, and, in some southern departments, the average exceeds 100 residents per km 2. The two main cities are located on the coast: Cotonou, the economic capital, and Porto Novo, the political capital (50,000 residents Each in 1955; 120,000 residents And 77,000 residents Respectively in 1967); the other major centers are: Ouidah, on the coast (21,000 residents), Abomey (31,000 residents) and Parakou (20,000 residents) along the railway line with Cotonou. The population is mostly animist (Catholics 400,000, Protestants 200,000); official language is French; the school attendance rate is still low and only since 1965 does a university-type institution operate in Porto Novo.
The accentuated economic gap between the coast and the interior represents the crucial problem of an extremely poor country ($ 90 per capita income in 1973); the development plans of recent years have intensified efforts in the agricultural field, focusing on the diversification of food crops and the improvement of plantations, and have attempted to lay the foundations for an initial industrialization thanks to international aid, especially French.
Agriculture employs almost 90% of the active population, but even today more than 60% of the territorial surface is unproductive; among the food crops, generally sufficient for internal consumption, we remember corn; while cassava, millet, sorghum, yam are losing importance and rice and banana appear stationary. Palm always stands out among the export crops. Production of copra, peanuts, tobacco, coffee and cotton is still scarce, even if on the rise. Breeding is quite widespread, but it is not able to satisfy the internal market and Benin imports cattle from Niger and Upper Volta. On the other hand, fishing in inland waters is important, which, although practiced with rudimentary means, is more than sufficient to meet the needs, while maritime fishing is still scarce.
The Benin is decidedly poor in mineral resources (modest quantities of iron and phosphates) and the mining industry is reduced to quarries of limestone, marl and marble; since 1968 the Union Oil of California has been carrying out oil exploration off the coast with some results.
According to indexdotcom, energy production remains very lacking and represents a serious obstacle for the start of industrialization, still modest and based on the transformation of agricultural products: five oil mills, six ginning plants for cotton and peanuts, pasta factories, breweries, canneries. In Cotonou there are also small factories of ceramics, cigarettes, matches, soap, mopeds; more important is the Onigbolo cement factory, active since 1967 with an annual production of 80,000 t, equal to 40% of its potential.
The trade balance, chronically deficit, has seen an increase in liabilities in recent years, which in 1972 reached almost 60 million dollars; it mainly trades with the countries of the EEC and West Africa. The development of the road network (6200 km; only a thousand asphalted) and of the railway network (579 km divided into 3 lines) is still scarce; the hub of communications is Cotonou, equipped with an international airport and the major port of Benin.
The political life of Benin was marked after independence (1 August 1960) by exceptional instability, above all due to the serious economic difficulties of the country and the presence – due to a relatively high development of education, since colonial era – of an elite that does not find a satisfactory position and in which feelings of frustration and discontent arise; add to the profound difference and contrasts between the northern and southern regions of the country.
President H. Maga – elected in 1961 after being prime minister since 1959 – was unable to cope with urban unemployment and, following riots and strikes, was dismissed in October 1963 by a military coup, led by col. Soglo who had a new constitution adopted – approved by a referendum on January 5, 1964 – on the basis of which a “two-headed executive” was established, to which Maga himself and Sourou-Migan Apithy (already head of the government before the ‘independence). Due to the failure of cooperation between the two leaders and the rekindling of unrest following the reduction of public salaries, col. Soglo in December 1965 intervened again assuming the presidency and forming a government of military and civilians, who tried to solve the problems of the country by imposing sacrifices and counting on French help. In turn, in December 1967 (shortly after returning from an official visit to France) Soglo was ousted by another group of soldiers; thus there was a transitory phase which ended with the introduction of a form of accentuated presidentialism (constitution approved in a referendum of March 31, 1968). Contested the elections by the old leaders, the military canceled them and brought the authoritative economist Emil Zinsou to the presidency, who gave the Benin a short period of stability. A new military coup took place in fact in December 1969, promoted by col. Kouandété; the situation evolved until the introduction of a fundamental law (May 16, 1970), which provided for a presidential council of three members, each of which would hold the presidency for two years. Maga’s presidency period passed neatly until the succession to Ahomadegbe approached, when there were tensions and suspicious episodes. Although the new system was functioning formally, it was not adequate to the increasingly serious problems of the country; on October 26, 1972, col. M. Kerekou dismissed the Presidential Council, arresting its three authoritative members, without however arousing opposition in the country; a government of military originating from the various regions was formed. The Kerekou government appears to have consolidated its position, despite failed subversive attempts in February 1973 and January 1975, followed by numerous convictions. In November 1975 the Revolutionary People’s Party of Benin (PRPB) was founded, chaired by Kerokou himself; the name of the country changed from Dahomey to the People’s Republic of Benin. Due to internal difficulties, the Benin, however small and economically weak, exercised little international political weight; since 1959 he has been a member of the Council of Understanding and since 1965 of OCAM, as well as of the previous French-speaking organizations; in recent years the Benin has loosened relations with France and with the French-speaking African countries while he has established more intense relations with neighboring Nigeria.